Getting to the Truer Version of the Story
October 28, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Aimee Christian
Memoirists often ask themselves, Would anyone actually want to read my story?
David Mura says, “I view the process of writing as a call to change: We start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book.”
I wrote an entire draft of my memoir and when I was done, I felt great. I submitted it to my writing group, who reflected back to me something I could not see myself. My first draft was not just shitty, it was ugly. Angry. Fury, all over the page. A 90,000-word vent. As Allison K Williams calls it in Seven Drafts, it was the vomit draft. But as I continued to revise and revise, I let go of so much wrath. As I cut the ugliness away from the narrative, I found that I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t need unpleasant words to describe other characters not only because I wanted the readers to draw their own conclusions—but because I didn’t feel that way anymore.
Just by writing it out.
Which is great. But was not enough to make the story the truth.
I’m not suggesting my memoir wasn’t true, or that your memoir isn’t true. But what is truth?
After you’ve edited for factual correctness; reckoned with what you remember versus what you don’t and how you plan to address the differences; and carefully crafted an acknowledgement that your book is your version of the truth, what comes next?
Melissa Febos put it so beautifully in her essay collection Abandon Me that when I listened to the audiobook in the car, I had to pull over to rewind again and again, writing down her words like it was the 1980s and I was trying to decipher The Cure’s lyrics from a tape. Stop. Listen. Stop. Scribble. Rewind. Repeat.
We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you.
I wanted to tattoo Febos’s words on my eyelids, on my fingertips, so that I would remember them with every single word I typed. I suddenly understood why I’d grown bored of my own manuscript. I’d written detailed accounts of all the stories I’d told over the years, of the smoothings over, the ironings out of truths. The stories I’d told myself that made my pain points a little less sharp, that made my shame a little easier to hold at night, that made my life a little easier to live. But in doing so, I’d left out all the parts that were not genuine. The pieces that made truly interesting memoir worth reading were just not there.
How would I begin to unravel the layers, peel back the covers, get at the rawer truths?
I did it and am still doing it painstakingly. Poring over a paragraph at a time, asking myself questions through a series of writing prompts, about sentences, dialogue, exchanges, actions. Why, why, why, okay and why, great but why, and why, no but why? Why did I do this? What did I mean? What did I really want? Why did I behave this way? What would this scene look like from the other person’s perspective? What if I wrote this scene in five sentences? What if I wrote it again, and again, and again?
Here’s an example: I know my mother, and I know how my mother behaves. So when I did that thing all those years ago, was I really so surprised when she behaved exactly as she always did? Or was I just looking for another excuse to feel wronged? Why did I do what I did? What did I think would really happen?
Getting this honest with myself, I didn’t like what I saw. But it was a much realer picture. And even I had to admit, the story that was unfolding on the page was much more interesting than the one I’d set out to write. I began to feel better about who I was. David Mura was right. I was becoming the person I wanted to be when I sat down to write the book. She was waiting for me.
If you’re going through the pain and vulnerability of writing a memoir at all, write the real one. Not the curated one. The one you don’t want people to see. The one you’ve tucked away all this time.
Dig it out. Dust it off. Get reacquainted with it. Learn to embrace it and maybe even love it.
Because that’s the story people want to read.
Join Aimee Christian for three Wednesday evening writing sessions beginning December 1st to get to the truer version of your story, looking at those parts that Melissa Febos says need to hurt, not flatter, and not comfort. “Let’s meet our own gaze and see what’s really looking back.” Includes readings, writing, and one workshop. Info and registration here.
Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net.